My trip to Cuba began on my birthday – after snarfing down a Duncan Hines birthday cake made by my four kids (and decorated with redhots), i headed to Miami first, then onto Havana.
It was hot when I arrived at Jose Marti airport – temperatures for the concert were well into the 90's. Hopeful concert-goers were lined up along the roads hoping to hitch a ride or catch a Wah-wah (the local bus) to La Plaza de la Revolution. It's the same spot where Pope John Paul II said mass back in 1998. But this was a concert and the "water station" in the tent for the performers served mojitos, with Havana Club – a rum you cannot buy in the United States, because of the embargo.
Our photographer Orlando arrived with a tent, thankfully, because by midday young women were fainting from heat exhaustion and the crowd estimate had swelled to 600 thousand people. At two o'clock sharp the concert began with Puerto Rican singer Olga Tañon taking the stage, and despite the heat the crowd danced wildly to her music. Cucu Diamantes (crazy diamonds), who is tall and willowy and never broke a sweat, told me she was happy – and that it was very emotional for her. A Cuban-American who left Cuba in in the mid eighties, she hadn't been back to Cuba for 8 years, and even then it was to visit her family.
We wrangled our way onto the stage – the security was tight but it was doable – and had a quick chat with Miguel Bose, who said he was energized by seeing so many Cubans waving flags. He – as all the performers consistently did – underscored the concerts focus: peace. And brushed off any questions of controversy by saying the people, the growing crowd, just wanted to be entertained. We got to run "backstage" (really the upstairs of the national library) to interview Juanes – making our way through the throng of mostly young people who were waiting outside to catch a glimpse of Juanes as he did the mad dash (about 100 yards) to the stage.
Juanes was thrilled with the crowd – by that time estimated (through satellite photos by the Cuban government) to be about 1.2 million people. He sang me some of the lyrics to the duet he did with Bose – "give me an island in the middle of the sea, named liberty." It sounded a little political to me, but he said it was a song Miguel Bose wrote a decade before, when this concert was an impossibility. And he sang happy birthday to me, which was pretty cool too. With Los Van Van on the stage, and more than an hour after the concert was supposed to wrap, the cloud cover cooled things down and the crowd was going crazy.
The final song, with all the performers on the stage to sing "Cuba Cuba Cuba," was a show stopper – it was nearly six hours of pure joy for the people who attended. The crowd dispersed for the slow trek home and we started packing up our gear. Back at the Hotel Nacional, I got to sit in and listen as Juanes played guitar with local musicians – there was lots of drinking and celebrating a successful day. In spite of all the obstacles – some resistance and small protests in Miami, logistical challenges and surely political hoops to jump through – Juanes pulled off his second concert for peace (the first was on the Colombian-Venezuelan border). He was already talking about the next one – in 2010 – on the U.S.-Mexico border.